From a refugee camp in Thailand to a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Cynthia Sears, MD, FIDSA, is an infectious disease expert dedicated to innovative research, compassionate care and health equity. In recognition of her impactful career, the IDSA Foundation is proud to honor Dr. Sears as a 2021 Women of ID honoree.
As a longtime supporter of the Foundation and former IDSA president, Dr. Sears demonstrates an unwavering commitment to advancing the field through her research and support of the next generation of ID specialists.
We sat down with Dr. Sears to discuss her career in ID and to learn more about the impact of the ID specialty.
Why did you decide on a career in infectious diseases?
I made the decision while working in a refugee camp called Khao I Dang in 1980-1981, located on the eastern border of Thailand. When I was a third-year resident at Cornell – then it was called The New York Hospital – there was an opportunity to work with the International Rescue Committee. They needed doctors because of a large influx of refugees from Cambodia, Burma (now Myanmar), Vietnam and Laos.
I went with a small group of people. We were called the “Cornell Team.” We served as the emergency department for what was in essence a 1,000-bed hospital, which was set up like bamboo airplane hangers. The camp was seven square miles with 150,000 – 180,000 individuals in that enclosed area. Diarrheal diseases and respiratory illnesses were extremely common in the camp. It was a low-resource setting, and I learned you could go a long way towards helping patients with antibiotics and fluids.
There had been some major misjudgments, such as not vaccinating people against measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox as they entered the camp. We had an outbreak of cholera, and I just happened to be working the night the first patient came in. The realization as I stood in the ward at 1 a.m. that I was looking at a case of cholera – I’ll never forget it.
There was also a young boy who was about 7 years old and who had rheumatic heart disease. He needed valve surgery but was in a refugee camp. Those of us who came from academic institutions felt we should lobby to get him and his mother to Bangkok to receive surgical treatment. However, the long-term field workers said the natural history of this disease is that you die. So that is a very stark moment, of course. Still, we lobbied, and he did get accepted to go to Bangkok for definitive therapy. That experience really affected me because the idea that you could look at a 7-year-old boy and not try harder was unacceptable to me – and still is. That pushed me away from long-term field work and towards research to improve care.
I had been on the fence between GI and ID, and these experiences just pushed me over the edge, and I came back to New York absolutely certain I wanted to do ID.
Are there any women in the field of ID who inspired you throughout your career?
Well, it’s of course the people who were just above me. Lucy Tompkins, MD, PhD, has always been fabulous to me, and I consider her a friend. I totally looked up to her. She was the first woman I invited to Johns Hopkins to be our visiting professor. When she and Stan Falkow, PhD, FIDSA, came it was just a spectacular several days.
There are many others who I have watched and who have helped me, including Cathy Wilfert, MD, who unfortunately we lost last year; Barbara Murray, MD, whom I learned from while she was president of IDSA; Kathy Edwards, MD; and Janet Gilsdorf, MD. We’re really lucky. We have wonderful people in ID.
Do you have any advice to young women or anyone considering a career in ID?
Go for it! ID is the most exciting, changeable, fun area of medicine. There is no other subspecialty that gets new diseases. We now have COVID, obviously a devastating illness but from which we will learn a great deal. We have Zika. I remember someone turning to me and asking: “What do you think of Zika?” And I’m thinking “What is Zika?” It was the day of the first case, and I hadn’t heard of it yet. I just remember my jaw dropping and turning on my computer to figure out what was going on. There’s something new every year.
Why do you support the IDSA Foundation?
I give because I support the next generation. I have long said that we, meaning IDSA and the Foundation, really need an expanded grants program. We need to do more, and so I’m really delighted that the Foundation has that in their view, and I would love to do anything I can to help that.
I am also grateful for this incredible honor and to IDSA and its staff for all their support over the years. ID is my home. I work in a very cross-disciplinary way. I’m part of a GI division and an oncology department, but I have to say, when I’m back with my ID colleagues, it is an incredible comfort because of our shared values and mission.
As a supporter of the Foundation, what impacts have you seen from the Foundation’s own efforts to create a diverse workforce and to fund research?
The board, particularly beginning with Bill Powderly, MD, then Paul Auwaerter, MD, MBA, and then myself as president, really pushed this challenge along with many others in the Society. I think the progress has been remarkable in a short period of time. Of course, there’s much more to do, but I think if you look at our board today versus even just a couple years ago, it is a different snapshot and a wonderful snapshot.
IDSA has worked very hard to highlight our diversity in so many ways – institutional diversity, gender-based diversity, ethnic background, how and where you grew up, what your race is. There are so many elements to it, and it’s important to keep them all in mind for all of us.
I think the steps forward began and have accelerated, and now, for me, the most important thing is that we can talk about it. When I was on the IDSA board 15 years ago, it was much harder to have the conversation, and we’ve just knocked the walls down. Now it’s ok to talk about these difficult subjects and to try to understand differing viewpoints without fear, which I think is progress.
You talked a lot about how far the field and the Foundation has come regarding equity. If you look to the future – what more do we need to be doing? What is that next goal that we need to achieve?
I think our younger generation gets it, and what they need is for those of us who are more senior to be the wall of support for them. If you look around, we have so much to do. We have antimicrobial resistance. We have pandemic preparedness, which is now a word that Americans have heard, and we understand we need to be better prepared. We need to get vaccines out for all because ultimately, I think our field, ID, is critical to health equity across the globe.
I tell my trainees that if you can go abroad and work, it will open your eyes. It helps you understand cultural differences. It helps you understand your limitations when you can’t speak the language. For me, it was an incredibly instructive experience. I also think we have plenty of communities in the United States where, by being part of the community you’re trying to connect with, you can learn a lot of what you need to understand to try to be a good doctor.
I also tell my students – two things have made a vast difference in how long people live. One is antibiotics and one is vaccines. Those are integral to our field. We have a high level of impact, but we still have lots of work to do.
About Dr. Sears
Cynthia Sears, MD, FIDSA, works as a professor of medicine and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and as a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
She has spent much of her career focused on gut infections, including diarrheal disease and foodborne illnesses, and now studies the relationship between gut bacteria and colon cancer. Today, Dr. Sears is the microbiome program leader of the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Johns Hopkins. She is also the director of the Johns Hopkins Germ-free Murine Facility.
To support the Women of ID — past, present and future — please consider making a gift to the Foundation today.